A Western special ops unit called the Mozart Group is training Ukrainian recruits. Volunteers offer crash courses in military tactics that are expected to last at least six months normally.
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One of the former US Marines yells, “Stand by.” The next signal is “Threat!” and a barrage of gunfire reverberates throughout a deserted quarry on a Ukrainian hillside merely a few miles from the front lines of battle.
In the 30C heat, sweat from the men is mixed with dust that the bullets have stirred up. The instructor points to a man with a frustrated expression who has scattered little holes around a target five meters distant and declares, “That is not the gun.” “You were putting the sight on a different spot every time.”
40 new Ukrainian recruits who were taken directly from the fighting are receiving a rigorous 10-day training course from a team of eight skilled and experienced western ex-military personnel in the heart of the Donbas.
Soldiers in the Donbas have been suffering serious casualties in a brutal artillery engagement as the fight for Ukraine’s east continues. Since 2014, Ukraine has been defending the eastern frontline with a professional fighting force, but it is now critically weakened. Since February 24th, new recruits have poured onto the battlefield, many with surprisingly little experience.
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The recruits on the program are outfitted with an assortment of weapons, fatigues, and body armor of various quality levels. The males range in age from their early 20s to their mid-50s, and they are all different shapes, sizes, and levels of fitness.
According to Andy Milburn, founder of the Mozart Group, a new private security firm charged with training Ukrainian soldiers, one in ten were in the military prior to entering the war and received very minimal formal training.
Milburn, a retired Marine Corps colonel who served in the US military for 31 years, enlisted the help of knowledgeable volunteers to train citizens who would defend Kyiv as members of the civil defense force. The Mozart Group, which is now located in Donbas, is made up of 20 to 30 volunteers from the US, the UK, Ireland, and other western nations.
The Wagner Group, a mysterious Russian paramilitary group that is frequently referred to be Vladimir Putin’s private army, was the inspiration for the name of the Mozart Group, which was created by its members as a tongue-in-cheek musical reference. According to Milburn, he was first “a little ambivalent about using the name,” but it has “caught on as a brand now.”
Since 2014, the Wagner Group has safeguarded Russian interests without much consideration for human rights or international law in unstable, third world nations including Syria, Libya, and the Central African Republic.
“I didn’t want to be associated with or compared to the Wagner group. We are not a counter to the Wagner Group; what we do is quite a bit different,” Milburn says.
The Mozart Group, which is primarily sponsored by US private donors and is composed of thoroughly screened recruits, also transports vulnerable individuals from conflict zones and provides food and sanitary items to frontline communities.
Rather than taking six months to teach, fundamental weapon handling, marksmanship, fire and manoeuvre, and battlefield tactics are taught to Ukrainian soldiers in five to ten-day crash courses. Milburn claims that the trainers have taught hundreds of troops to communicate with recruits through two interpreters, which is insufficient for the task, but they have failed to find personnel with the appropriate abilities.
In a used British camouflage tunic with a union jack badge stitched on the sleeve and identifying himself just by his call sign, Bison, a 42-year-old soldier tells the Guardian during firing practice, “I am yet to fight on the frontline but we have been manning positions that have been shelled and hit by rocket attacks.”
Mechanical engineer from Dnipro, Bison, who is now a battalion medic, purchased a hunting rifle when the war began in order to practice shooting. “I did a week’s tactical medical course after having a bad cycling accident during the Covid lockdown. I told them and they made me a medic,” the man says, smiling, while holding a medical pack on top of his body armor.
According to Dathan, a former advanced paramedic who spent 23 years serving in the Irish military in places like Kosovo and Syria and joined the Mozart Group in May, that is more experience than the majority of medical professionals.
“You ask medics what their qualifications are and they say: ‘Well I was given this bag and now I’m the medic’,” says Dathan.
“Only one out of this group of 40 had zeroed his weapon before the training started,” Milburn says as he walks through the brush to the makeshift training site. When you zero a weapon, you line the sights so you may correctly aim at a target. “That’s the first thing you do,” Milburn explains.
Ukrainian troops are trained near the frontlines because their commanders cannot afford to have their soldiers away from the battlefield for too long in case the Russians attempt to advance. These organisations would wish to train 100 to 120 men at a time, but they cannot afford to remove them from their positions, according to Milburn.
“It’s backwards: you don’t go to combat first and then come back to be trained,” Dathan agrees. “The Ukrainian government doesn’t want to say that most of their military isn’t really trained. But they are trying to fight the Russians who, luckily enough, aren’t trained either.”
“This is what it must have been like in world war one,” Alex (not his real name) tells the Guardian over the phone from Bulgaria. Alex is a former British soldier who was on leave but stated that he wished to return to help permanently.
“They are 36-, 37-year-old men and four months ago these guys were taxi drivers or farmers. None of them want to be in the army, but they say our country has been invaded. What do you expect us to do? Massive respect to them. But it is quite sad to be honest,” says Alex.
However, the troops make up for their lack of expertise with passion and tenacity. “They are upbeat, they listen, they are attentive and most of all they have a great sense of humour,” says Milburn, looking over the training exercise.
“They don’t complain, take everything in and give 100%,” Dathan agrees.
Tiger, a 22-year-old soldier who was enrolled in Dnipro’s law school at the time of the conflict, claims he is currently finishing his degree remotely while preparing for battle.
The members of Mozart are eager to set themselves apart from the influx of war tourists and want-to-be soldiers who were seen in Kyiv at the beginning of the crisis sharing stories and propping hotel bars in pricey new military attire. “It’s dangerous,” Alex says. “You might get yourself or someone else injured or killed – and it damages relations between westerners and Ukrainians.”
The trainers claim they joined the Mozart Group to become “combat multipliers,” arguing that it made more sense to train hundreds of Ukrainians than than risk being murdered in the war. According to the UK government website, those traveling “to fight, or to assist others engaged in the war” may face prosecution upon their return to the UK.
Alex and Milburn concur that owing to a lack of training and competence among Ukrainian troops and commanders, US and Western weapons systems and military equipment are not being deployed or disseminated effectively.
“They are not deploying the weapons,” said Alex, who spent seven and a half years in the British military specializing and training in the use of Javelins and NLAWs, high-tech US and UK anti-tank weaponry that proved crucial in Ukraine’s victory in pushing Russia out of Kyiv in March.
According to Alex, from interactions with commanders, the $178,000 Javelins systems are being misused or becoming obsolete, with advanced sight batteries running out before the rockets are fired. “They are not getting the training they need,” says Alex.
After the marksmanship session, the troops convene for a briefing and Q&A session. “Where should the metal plates be positioned ideally in our armour?” asks one man, and the trainer demonstrates while the men watch intently. When asked if he was afraid about going to the frontline, Bison responds, “I’m becoming more calm as I get more training.”
Nestor, a 26-year-old Ukrainian soldier from Dnipro who had been serving in the Donbas since 2014, returned to the firing range with Rob, the former US Marine, after the debrief to obtain some more suggestions on changing magazines. “These instructors are amazing, it’s so detailed no matter your experience level,” Nestor says. Ten of the 15 friends Nestor has lost in the battle since 2014 have perished this year.
The US, the UK, the EU, and other western allies have provided weaponry and training abroad but have not sent soldiers into Ukraine because of concern that the crisis could turn into a war between Russia and NATO. Andy Milburn, though, wishes he had more communication with the US government.
When asked if he shares intelligence with the US, he responds, “That’s kind of the easy part,” before going on to say that the US government is worried that if they support Mozart, the group would evolve into a private military contractor and get engaged in the actual fighting.
Milburn explains that if any of the Mozart Group volunteers really engage in combat, they are no longer a part of the group. “There is a very clear line.”